Time for our first full-length returning world that isn’t a memory! And it’s not quite the “return” you’d expect, given that very little of it takes place in the actual Coliseum and none of the story bits are tournament. If only they’d do this more often. If only they’d do this more often… even within this one game.
First off, an interesting Gummi Mission on the way in here. This is Phantom Storm, and while it stands alone on the map, it is in a pair like nearly every other Gummi Mission: it’s paired up with another seemingly unpaired mission at the other end of the map! Clever! These missions take place in a sort of plasma cloud, which means no ground enemies and a lot of fliers – generally rough news, considering the ground enemies stink and are usually a nice break.
But I promised you something interesting. How does a Heartless pirate ship sound? This gummi ship attacks you with an army of ghosts (no, really!) and you can destroy it piece by piece, cannon by cannon, before finally attacking a hidden skull underneath its cow catcher-looking jaw-plate. Very satisfying, I can’t complain in the slightest. We’re leagues away from KH1’s simplistic gummi mode, even if this KH2’s gummi mode is just an average quality shooter in its own right. One of the more interesting bits of this mission is how a group of Organization gunships (“Knight Heads”) show up to attack the Heartless alongside you! Oh, and Organization “Grapplers” continue to attack you, so I guess they having trouble prioritizing their targets, or they’re trying to have their cake and eat it too. It’s too bad things are so chaotic that I didn’t even notice the Knight Heads were attacking the Pirate Ship until I was going for the gummi mission trophies nine years later. All things considered, the Knight Heads may be more valuable to you dead and dropping Medals than alive and shooting, but it’s a nice narrative touch all the same.
Down on the world, Hercules is fighting in the arena against the Rock Titan, to the cheers of an… invisible ghost crowd that is clearly not there. This was a problem in KH1 as well, but it only gets worse from here. Seeing Herc pander to a coliseum full of empty seats is pretty pathetic in any circumstance.
Despite this opening shot, when we rejoin Sora and the others, they’re sure not in the arena. It seems Sora managed to miss the landing he must have done at least five times in KH1 (one per tournament) and landed… in hell. Which is a pretty bad way to miss a landing, let me tell you. This is like trying to pulling off the freeway on your way to work tomorrow and parking in the reign of Caesar Augustus.
Thankfully the exit to Hades’ domain is just behind you (the game once again raises the unanswerable question of where they put the gummi ship), but the trio is interrupted by a cry from the door leading down into the Underworld, and they turn to see Hercules’ friend Megara being chased by Heartless. These Heartless are a new variety called Rabid Dogs that have moderate attack and no defence, though you don’t actually fight them at the moment.
Sora and the others scare the Rabid Dogs off, and Meg explains what’s going on since KH1… however long that’s been (in DDD, there’s a scene where someone says “You know how time flows differently on every world?” and Sora just casually says “Yeah,” because by the time you get to DDD it’s the only explanation for the past six games.) Meg is voiced by her original voice actress Susan Egan, whom you may recognize as the voice of Rose Quartz from Steven Universe. For her Disney connections, Egan was the original Broadway actress for Belle in Beauty and the Beast, and would later do the singing voice of Angel, the female lead in Lady and the Tramp 2.
Meg tells us that Hades has been sending monster after monster after monster to the arena in hopes of exhausting Hercules instead of trying to defeat him outright. Meg was going to try to negotiate with Hades into giving Hercules a break. It’s not clear to me whether or not Meg realizes that exhaustion is Hades’ plan and he has no reason to give it up… but as a fan of the movie, I think it’s possible that Meg realized Hades loves to cut a deal maybe even more than he likes winning. Sora offers to talk to Hades instead, and Meg accepts. I like to think Meg realizes Sora might be able to threaten Hades into doing what she wants instead of having to promise him a favour. Hey, whatever works for her, right? Meg isn’t nearly as ruthless in KH2 as I’d expect as a fan of the movie, though a lot of the time this is justified by context… I just get tired of KH2 setting up the context so things will be “easier,” and often off-character, that’s all.
Sora and the others descend into the depths. The Underworld, the pseudo-world we’re in right now, is made up of two halves and this first half is a long winding road, mostly downhill. Fighting in the Underworld is odd. First off, there are falling rocks all over the place, and there are little floating wisps you can attack for magic recovery bubbles (I do hope Sora’s not flogging the souls of the dead for battery power…). But the biggest consequence is the chains locking down your Drive Gauge. The game explains that the Underworld has a curse that is sapping your strength. Judging from a line of dialogue later on, this penalty may have once been worse in an earlier revision of the game (the character in question acts like you can barely fight at all), but none of this explains why the game is once again stomping down on your ability to use the its own damn features. Here’s Valour Form! But you can’t use it because of Morale Orbs! Here’s Chicken Little! But you can’t use him because fuck you!
Along the way through the world, you spot a member of the Organization. Later, you spot him again, running away from Hades’ headquarters as fast as his legs will take him. This is Ryan O’Donohue’s character, and judging by the cutscene that follows, he had an unfortunate run-in with our friend with the flammable hair. Hades is not alone. He’s presently entertaining Pete, who later implies the Heartless scattering about the world are part of his army. (Say, did Pete have a platoon of Underworld-themed Heartless already, or do Emblems like… take on different forms as they travel? Don’t mind me.) It seems Pete is trying to coax Hades to come back to Maleficent, but Hades has the attention span of a kitten when it comes to things that don’t give him an immediate benefit, and he refuses to stop talking about Hercules. Pete’s getting a laugh out of Hades’ failure (I love villain negotiations), and says that he might as well send someone who’s already dead, since Hercules keeps sending his monsters to the underworld in the first place. The localization sidesteps that he’s talking about death, but you get the drift. But it seems Hades likes this idea…
You make it to the bottom of the slope, where you find a floating, glowing book emblem in FM+. Sora and the others approach, and find that the book is titled “Absent Silhouettes.” They also seem to miss the part where the book is covered with Organization emblems, perhaps because this is the first time they’ve had a chance to really examine such symbols. The party considers the book for a while, but refuses to interact any further. From an external perspective, this is because the player’s Drive Gauge is still locked (just trust me on this): once you deal with that, the book is fair game.
For the time being, it’s time to proceed into the pool of souls from the end of Disney’s Hercules, where you can see Hades’ fortress in the distance, up a winding ramp. There, Creeper Plants will make their action game debut. They function similar to CoM, with the addition of a weird attack with their roots that might trigger a Reaction Command that will uproot them (though the reaction command only appears if you’re standing firmly on the ground. As a result, they can easily stab you as you come down from a jump, like the Assassin’s self destruct attack). If you do uproot the Creeper Plant, it causes splash damage at their location (huh?) and more-or-less removes them as a threat entirely. I’m not sure why they didn’t just kill the Creeper Plant instantly as it would have the same impact on the battle.
As you’ve descended through the world, you’ve gotten cutaways to Hades, who is in the process of summoning a warrior from one of the deepest pits of his domain. “The mother of all bad guys!” This phrasing is… let’s say “misleading,” because the person he calls up from the grave is Auron, a warrior monk and “guardian” from Final Fantasy X – definitely not a bad guy. But even more confusing (FFX spoilers!)… as far as I understand FFX, Auron shouldn’t be dead? (Especially since Tidus, the hero of FFX, is a teenager right now!) Was this another of KH2’s dramatic over-reinterpretations, like Setzer? Maybe I’ll find out when the Marathon hits FFX! In the meantime, while I may not be able to explain why Auron is dead, I can explain “The mother of all bad guys.” It’s censorship. Hades should have said “The mother of all badasses,” but in trying to avoid that, the localizers made Auron out to be a villain by accident.
Auron here is voiced by his original voice actor, Matt McKenzie, who also appeared in Square’s 2001 uberflop, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Hey, he’s being reunited with James Woods! We’ve got Ming-Na Wen over in the next booth, maybe she could come over here and play… I don’t know, one of the Furies? Alec Baldwin could voice the ghost of Achilles! I’m not going to be particular on the specifics, I just want to make a joke about The Spirits Within being in hell.
Hades promises to resurrect him so long as he fights Hercules to the death, but he neglected to consider the part where he summoned Auron back fully armed. As we’ll see, as a god, Hades is not really in any danger, but who does that? This was during the era when Square Enix’s giant weapons fetish was still going full bore. Auron’s “Battlefields of War” katana is almost as wide as his (cartoonish compressed) torso. Imagine the scene in Rohan in The Two Towers, where the Aragorn and friends are asked to disarm, except when Grima orders the guards to take “the Wizard’s staff,” Gandalf is carrying a bazooka.
Auron takes a stand against Hades, echoing a critical line from FFX: “This is my story.” Hades blows his top, which makes this a pretty apt time for Sora and friends to come in with their polite request. By the way, during this whole scene, Sora never notices Pete. This might seem like another nitpick but it’s actually the symptom of a much larger problem about Pete’s presence that we’ll elaborate on as we go along.
Auron attacks Hades and Sora and the others feel compelled to join in, but thanks to the curse of the underworld that’s blocking your drive gauge, you can’t hurt Hades at all. Hades chases you out of the tower, and Auron forces his way into your party, the first official Final Fantasy team member. I find Auron to be a pretty stand-up guest party member, definitely upper-tier. Just consider his reach with that polearm he calls a sword! Unfortunately, he very quickly leaves your party and doesn’t rejoin until after the world is done (essentially not until the first tournament starts), giving me little opportunity to analyze him.
Because Auron forced himself into the party, the game generously cuts to the menu to give you a brief chance to adjust his abilities and items. Players like me will want to disable his Auto-Limit, as you’re going to be plunged directly into a battle. Auron’s Limit, Overdrive, is helpful here (remember, the Drive Gauge is disabled so Limits are all you have), but that doesn’t make me like Auto-abilities any more than I ever do.
Hades cuts off your escape from the tower by using a series of force fields, and this is where the game’s force field fetish goes beyond convenience and into irritant. You can only take down the forcefields by killing the Heartless (Hades himself is invincible) which adds an additional level of artificiality to the experience. If Hades is holding up the force fields, why not keep them up? This isn’t just KH2’s problem, it’s a problem with the entire 3D gaming industry, but for me, KH2 makes things worse by having cutscenes focus on the force fields as though to underline the problem.
If you’ll give me a moment, let me explain the issue by taking a sample from my draft of the MMX7 Marathon Journal, to talk about one of the most maligned stage-boss combos of the PS2 era, Flame Hyenard’s foundry.
After completing an awful 2D section that I won’t be discussing here, Hyenard’s stage enters an over-the-shoulder 3D segment in the bowls of the foundry. All of Mega Man X7’s over-the-shoulder stages are awful, and since Hyenard’s stage was at the top of the steaming pile, I used his section of the writeup to try to explain why.
One of the major rewards in the 2D Platformer genre was how they allowed you to explore a world. They looked like a place and you can move around that place freely, which was a revolution compared to most of the games that had preceded Super Mario Brother’s launch. The freedom of exploration in 2D games was checked by enemies designed to halt that exploration, so by defeating enemies, you win your reward of exploration and discovery.
The trouble came in the era of early 3D games, which tried to mimic the 2D without understanding their central mechanics. Enemies still exist, but the expanded level design prevents them from blocking your path with their limited AI. If 3D platformers were to actually function in the same way as 2D platformers, than enemies should have primarily continued to serve as temporary “walls,” but the AI of the day (and even today) was not up to the standard.
(The AI research of today is primarily dedicated to first person shooters, to the point where online tutorials and books dedicated to introductory and even intermediate AI programming take it for granted that all programming students are studying AI for the sake of FPSes, and leave other genres in the dust.)
Since enemy AI was inadequate, exploration in 3D games no longer had to be earned from enemies and game developers should have changed the design of other elements of their games to compensate… and most did not. Mario 64 accomplished this by increasing Mario’s mobility to make level design the central challenge, not enemy interaction. Mario 64’s enemies are either used in very particular situations that force you to use skill to dodge them, or rarely to dot open spaces for the sake of colour. You’ll notice that, in practice, that most Mario 64 “enemies” are actually just traps or obstacles – that is to say, speedbumps to mobility, but the game is also aware of their limitations and uses them sparingly compared to navigation and environment traps.
Enter X7, a game trying to seize on Mega Man’s reputation for precision platforming by foolishly removing all precision and most platforming. Hyenard’s stage was an exception, trying to reclaim platforming to disastrous results. None of these enemies can stop your progress. Not the giant mechs, not the smaller mechs. The flying mechs might tag you occasionally, but entirely by accident. The game even draws attention to this with its simplistic and minimalist level design. The enemies are purely decorative, and as the game’s shitty controls and awful level design drop you in the lava time and time again, you soon learn to ignore them entirely, and then you realize that if they can’t even defend these tiny narrow platforms, what are they even good for?
While we can debate whether or not KH2 is focused on exploration, we can certainly agree that one of its primary focuses is on combat, but in practice, enemies are so incapable of actually forcing you into combat that they may as well not be a threat at all. You can barrel past KH2’s enemies, probably by design to ease up travel through the worlds, but as a consequence, no combat in the game is truly “forced,” which has a consequence of making all combat artificial. Only in gaming do we accept a narrative where all the tension comes from slamming literal doors in the protagonist’s face. While this is an industry wide problem with locked doors and force fields in general, KH2 goes a step beyond by accidentally exposing this mechanism as openly and frequently as it is going to do. The problem started in the prologue and it’s going to keep happening until the end of the game.
I could make the same complaint about every single forced combat in the entire game, and it upsets one of the game’s other primary focuses: narrative. Why doesn’t Sora barrel down the hill? Force fields. Why doesn’t he just walk past the crowd of Heartless when another group of them will just respawn even if he kills them? Force fields. While I understand the narrative role of the Hades fight (Hades is summoning the walls), later in the game we’re going to have moments where we ask: why is this fight different? Is someone in danger, is something somehow restraining you? Surprise: it’s force fields. Drawing attention to the force fields draws attention to a problem so pervasive it hits every single game in the genre: enemies aren’t actually threats and the industry has had to use tricks to force them to be threats. Only enemies in Shooters can stop you from running past them because they have the power of long-ranged attacks. Maybe with better AI, this will change in the future, but for the time being, these force field tricks are absolutely necessary, I’m not condemning their general use. The problem is that KH2 just keeps committing the cardinal sin of pointing them out, like a magician pointing to the trap door. Every time they use the force fields, the game dramatically zooms in to announce “Oh no, you’re in trouble now!” ignorant to the fact that, to say that, they also had to say “You know we’re in trouble because, without the force field, you wouldn’t be in trouble at any point in the game.”
Back to the fight at hand. Hades is a pretty heavy hitter, and it doesn’t come up much in games but bosses can be real trouble if you’re not actually trying (or in this case, able) to deal with them. Still, once you get through the door at the bottom of the hill, Hades just… gives up, and you get to carry on on your own. The funny thing is, it’s not that Hades is letting you go. We see him and Pete in cutscene, and he is furious, so furious he summons Cerberus to go after you, apparently too lazy to keep up on foot?
Boy, Cerberus is sure in this series a lot for a monster that was only in the film for a few seconds.
Auron introduces himself to Sora in the safe zone (in a nice touch, no one uses his name in combat prior to this introduction). Since he feels your meeting is destiny, Auron asks if Sora need a “guardian,” another nod to FFX fans. Sora says no, but that they can stick together for their escape. The group begins to climb out of the Underworld, and Hades’ pet pup catches up to you where you’d expect: the obvious boss arena at the top of the hill. There’s a huge door in this room cutting you off from the entrance, and you discover that the door has been chained shut with giant, preposterous chains… which no one notices as they run up to the door. How everyone misses a padlock the side of a Volkswagen, I can’t tell you. Kingdom Hearts characters have a problem with noticing things that haven’t happened yet and not noticing things that have. It’s like they exist a few seconds out of time. It’s a problem across the entire series.
Sora uses the Keyblade to open the lock, but Cerberus is hot the team’s tail, and they only just get the door open in time thanks to Auron staying behind to intercept Cerberus. Naturally, Sora refuses to leave Auron behind and rushes back in. Naturally in a different way, a force field springs up to stop Donald and Goofy from joining them, this time without some spellcaster around to even justify it. Bear in mind: if Hades could, in any way, seal the gate with an impenetrable force field instead of a dumb mechanical lock, this whole plot collapses because he should have done it to begin with, instead of only when Cerberus arrived. Again: I recognize why this is happening, but KH2 shouldn’t be shining a light in its own dark places.
I don’t mean to keep harping on this, it’s just that this escape sequence has made such a hash of the force fields that if I was going to talk about it anywhere, it had to be here. After the force field goes up, we get dramatic shot of Sora and Auron that, in my mind, just underlines that the devs didn’t just see the force fields as a way of artificially controlling the player so much as a tool to create dramatic situations. The problem is: they are artificially controlling the player and their focus on the “drama” keeps accidentally pointing the camera at the means they’re using to control the player! This makes me feel like if the sequence was arranged artificially, then the drama itself is artificial.
Back to the battle. Fighting without Donald is less trouble now that Sora has Cure, but this battle has always been something of a challenge, seeing as how your Drives and Summons are still locked down. Oh, and those bloody rocks are still falling from the ceiling. Giving some items to Auron ahead of time can ease the pain a little, and Cerberus has some reaction commands for you to exploit. Luckily the fight isn’t the NPC-slaughtering dark vomit-fest of the original game, but Cerberus is now smaller, impossible to ride, and a great deal faster, not unlike what I was saying about Large Bodies in Beast’s Castle. Limits are a viable strategy, not that you have many other options. Failing all else, all you’ll need is a little practice. This is the first fight of the past few hours where I’ve lost in the past, so I can say there is something of a difficulty hump. It might take a few loses to help you realize that the past four or five hours didn’t teach you a damn thing about how to actually play KH2. Funnily enough, the actual bosses of Olympus Coliseum don’t really stack up to this midboss.
Once you finally win, the force field collapses (which nincompoop keeps wiring these things to the HP bars?) and the two of you get out, Donald and Goofy shutting the doors behind you. Auron slips off while you’re chatting, and doesn’t return until well after you’ve cleared the world. The tacit implication seems to be that he can’t leave the Underworld, since Hades never really let him go, but you’re perfectly able to take him out to visit the Coliseum after he rejoins?
By the way, Jiminy’s journal for Cerberus explains that Hades “brought [Cerberus] back” after KH1 but… Cerberus was never dead? Or gone? Or absent in any way?